Sunday, October 4, 2015

Hop Harvest

The hop yards of southwestern Idaho are growing quiet and empty. The walls of hops are disappearing as workers cut and gather the lanky plants. Unpaved roads give up dust to the trucks that carry the plants to the hop-pickers and -driers that rattle and hum with activity in the farm fields around Wilder, ID.

Wrangling the tall plants takes special equipment. This short video shows how the Obendorf Hop Farm first clips the bottoms of the plants and then pulls them down and gathers them on a truck.
My story in last fall’s Edible Idaho describes the action at the picker/drier and tells how the hop fields of Wilder have changed with the popularity of hoppy craft beers. An earlier blog post shows how workers install twine for the young hop plants to climb in spring.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Do Sagebrush Steppe Grasses Need to Be Grazed?

A rancher in southwestern Idaho and I have been having the same conversation for years. We both enjoy it and we always have something to talk about. My friend, the rancher/cow whisperer, thinks our native perennial grasses are better off when they’re grazed. By better off, he means greener and more vigorous, without old, dead leaves.

Rancher/Cow Whisperer told me about perennial grasses growing in a steep canyon, where his cattle can’t reach them. The grasses are choked with dead leaves and their centers have died. Grazing would have kept the grasses trim, green, and vigorous.

I haven’t scrambled into the canyon to see the ungrazed grasses, but I’ve kept my eye on some non-native landscaping plants in Boise. These grasses haven’t been grazed and the inside of each plant has died. I got a photo of the dead centers after the grasses’ annual hair cut in late spring. The plants' outside leaves will soon be tall enough to hide the dead centers.
I tell Rancher/Cow Whisperer that I also prefer green plants to dormant or dead ones. I’d rather see lush green lawns, pastures, and alfalfa fields than dry, brown ones. When I see big, thick summer grasses bucking and waving in the wind of the Dakotas or the Great Plains, I want to roll in them.

But, are sagebrush steppe grasses embarrassed by their old leaves? Do they worry about their dead centers?

I remembered my on-going conversation with Rancher/Cow Whisperer when I saw a piece by a writing rancher. Rancher/Writer had visited one of my favorite places on the Sagebrush Sea, where management includes restrictions on grazing. She wondered if there wasn’t too much bare ground and if appropriate grazing could help fill in between the plants. As a plant ecologist, I see bare ground and I’m reminded of the admirable tenacity of our native perennial grasses.

Bare ground reminds me that sagebrush steppe grasses grow in clumps so they can use the water and nutrients in the space around them. The plants have to do all their growing in the limited time between the “too cold” of winter and “too dry” of summer. They have to grab all the water and nutrients they can, as fast as they can, from as large an area as they can.

Our native bunchgrasses aren't altruistic. They won't cut consumption so other plants can grow around them. If they left water and nutrients for others, the other might be cheatgrass, which would increase the chance of fire. Cheatgrass is fuel for fires; bare ground is a firebreak that helps protect bunchgrasses.

Rancher/Writer noticed dead grass leaves and wondered if appropriate grazing could rejuvenate the plants. I see dead leaves and dead grass centers and I’m reminded of how well the plants are protecting the soil.

Dead leaves remind me that the material will decay and release nutrients into the soil for the plant to use. When the center of a bunchgrass dies, the dead material goes on protecting the soil, its water, its nutrients. The plant cries, “It’s just a flesh wound!” and keeps growing out around its edges--finding more water and nutrients.

Do our native sagebrush steppe grasses need to be grazed? If we look at it from the plants’ and the soil’s point of view, I don’t think so.

I’ll slow down to enjoy the sight of green irrigated pastures and breathe in the fragrance of a just-cut alfalfa field. Someday, I might stop to roll in the lush summer grasses on the plains. I'll also be amazed by our native perennial grasses. These bunchgrasses grow in challenging country and can do an exemplar job protecting our soil and keeping cheatgrass out of the Sagebrush Sea.

Instead of focusing on their unkempt appearance, let's thank our sagebrush steppe grasses for all the work they do.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Events Not Seen at PRCA Rodeos

I left my camera at home and watched this weekend's Salmon Stampede through my big purple glasses instead of my tiny Canon viewfinder. During a break in the action, I studied my program while a rodeo clown whipped fans into a standing, arm-waving Oprah Giveaway frenzy, "Me, me! Right here!" I caught a rolled up Pendleton T shirt torpedo with my face.

Last spring's regional high school rodeo included events missing from this weekend's PRCA (Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association) Stampede. Both pro and high school rodeoers compete in tie down roping, where cowboys jump off their horses and tie together three legs of the calves they rope. High school rodeo adds breakaway roping, which doesn't include jumping or tying. Contestants, usually girls, catch calves using ropes designed to break and release captives.

The man perched above the action springs the calf with a lever that opens the front of its chute. The running calf gets a head start before the rope barrier in front of the horse's chute drops.

The rider tosses her loop.

Yes! She got him.

The contestant follows the calf to the end of the arena to retrieve her rope.

Both pro and high school rodeos include team roping, where two riders catch steers that are larger than the calves used in tie down and breakaway roping. Each team consists of a header and a heeler; in high school rodeo, both cowboys and cowgirls compete.

The header, on the right, swings for the steer's head.

She catches the horns, which are protected by leather wraps...

...then turns her horse to point the other end of the steer toward the heeler.

The heeler swings a loop under the back legs of the steer to catch those, too...

...which is a tricky maneuver. This steer was only half caught, which gave the team a complete "no time."

The high school rodeo lacked a few activities featured at the Stampede. There was no beer drinking, as it was an ethanol-free event, and the rodeo clowns were all business. They protected the bull riders and didn't assault spectators with articles of clothing.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Who Should Monitor Federal Rangelands?

“The fox guarding the henhouse.” That's what Linda Price expects some to say about a new rangeland monitoring program. I quoted the manager of the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Field Office in Salmon, Idaho, in a recent article.

The Idaho State Department of Agriculture (ISDA) saw the need for more information on the condition of BLM rangelands in the state and came up with a solution. Brooke Jacobson, ISDA’s coordinator for the project, helps ranchers get start collecting vegetation data on land they lease for livestock grazing. Meanwhile, the BLM’s vegetation specialists are stuck at their desks doing paperwork. A steady stream of time-sucking lawsuits provides job security, but keeps agency employees away from their monitoring duties.
Brooke shows ranchers how to take annual photos at BLM monitoring sites and send their data to the agency. Ranchers can also attend one of the University of Idaho’s monitoring workshops. In this pilot program, ranchers will monitor only upland rangelands, not sensitive riparian areas. They won’t be measuring, or even counting, vegetation; they’ll be collecting photographic data.

Even with training and help from Brooke, some people might not think ranchers are up to the task. The skeptics must never have worked on a veg crew.

When I hired crews to collect vegetation data at the U.S. Geological Survey, I didn’t ask if applicants knew how to count plants. I asked the hard question: “Can you handle a summer living out on the Sagebrush Sea?” Anyone who can tolerate boring, repetitive tasks can learn to collect data; only a few hardy souls can sleep in a tent, haul water, and build a toilet with a shovel all summer. Data collection ain’t rocket surgery.
Nonscientists collecting data is nothing new. Amateur and professional scientists work together on the North American Breeding Bird Survey. They receive the same training and their data go into the same valuable dataset on bird numbers and distribution. Citizen scientists also record the seasonal changes in plants and animals for the National Phenology Network. This information helps scientists identify patterns of global climate change, which helps planners address the social and economic stresses that result.

You could argue that ranchers might fudge the data when monitoring their grazing lands. If you did, I’d point out that anyone could be tempted to blink at the wrong time while reading data. Every BLM employee has an opinion on livestock. Researchers have their favorite hypotheses. Even universities listen to their supporters, legislators, and alumni, all of whom have biases.

Software developers are making data collection easier and more accurate for both citizen and career scientists. Before Amazon ever heard of drones, Terry Booth, at the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service in Cheyenne, WY, was photographing rangelands from light aircraft. The photos were clear enough to count plants and measure bare ground. In other words, they were detailed enough to monitor rangelands.

It’s been years since I saw a rancher with a flip phone (four months since I gave up mine). Smart phone cameras take excellent pictures and a University of Nebraska app makes photographing the same spot every year...a snap.

Ranchers and BLM employees look through the same viewfinder, but they see different things. Most agency workers move several times during their career. Most ranchers stay put for decades; their families often stay rooted for generations. Ranchers experience many El Niño and La Niña years on the same land. They see swings in precipitation and note the effects on plants and livestock. Ranchers are on the land 24/7/365 and they see things.
When my friends Jake Weltzin and Steve Archer investigated why mesquite trees were invading Texas grasslands, they asked the local ranchers. Guy and G. D. London told my friends that mesquite moved in after they killed the prairie dogs. Jake and Steve tested the ranchers' hypothesis and found that prairie dogs keep mesquite out of grasslands by clearing away seedpods and stripping bark from seedlings.
Rumor has it that ranchers remember three years: this year, last year, the best year. Researchers know memories fade and insist on written data. In the words of Adam Savage, one of Discovery channel’s MythBusters,“The only difference between screwing around and science, is writing it down.”

Ranchers will go one better when they monitor their rangeland: they’ll take pictures. Then they're write down when and where they took them.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Rodeo Clowns: No Joke

I spent two days in the bleachers with the parents, grandparents, and siblings of high school rodeo contestants in Salmon, Idaho. The snack bar served beef, but no beer.

Both days ended with bull riding. The contestants were high school students, but the rodeo clowns, or bullfighters, were the real deal. Big time fighter-clowns, the ones on the Professional Bull Riders circuit, are celebrities. Flint Rasmussen has been immortalized in plastic. The fighter-clowns at Salmon’s high school rodeo might never reach those dizzying heights, but they were pros.

Some fighter-clowns entertain the crowds between bulls. Flint tells jokes and dances. Those at my first rodeo, in Preston, MN, provided bathroom humor. My aunt, who’d brought me to the rodeo, didn’t approve. Decades later, she didn’t approve of my line dancing class; it was “too worldly.”

Salmon’s high school bull riders wore headgear and padded vests. Some pro riders wear brain buckets, too. I couldn’t see what kind of protection the fighter-clowns wore under their baggy clothes, but I could see that only cowboy hats protected their noggins. They weren't shod with matching cowboy boots at the other end: they wore cleated shoes for traction.

Cleated shoes suggest the need to dodge feedback from the crowd, but that wasn’t the case. Salmon's fighter-clowns were the non-entertaining variety. The real job of these rodeo professionals is protecting the cowboys from the bulls. Here’s an example of how they do that, from the Salmon high school rodeo.

This cowboy looks good out of the chute. The fighter-clown in red and black is watching from the right.

Then the rider starts to tip.

He's too far forward now.

A bull rider's nightmare: his hand is hung up. Riders stay on by wedging one hand under their rope, which is wrapped around the bull. If a rider comes off frontwards, their hand can get caught. Red-and-black is putting his cleats to the arena sand.

Both clowns are there to free the rider and distract the bull from attacking him.

Red-and-black fighter-clown jumps over the bull; his hands hit where the rider's hand was trapped. The second fighter-clown, in blue, is nearly hidden behind the bull. The rider hits the ground with his hand still attached to his arm.

Red-and-black slips on landing; Blue sprints to distract the bull from the fallen fighter-clown. The rider gets up and out of the way so the fighter-clowns don't have to protect him, too.

The bull kicks off the rope as the two mounted pickup riders move in with their ropes. Pickup riders can get close enough to bucking horses for bronc riders to grab on for a graceful exit, but this doesn't work with bulls. Bulls charge horses. In bull riding, pickup riders can only watch the drama and then escort the bull out of the arena.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Three Degrees, No Garlic Scapes

In three agriculture degrees, several botany classes, and decades as a plant ecologist, I never ran into garlic scapes. I know and use terms such as “homoploid hybrid species” and “Pseudotsuga menziesii.” But, until last Saturday, I’d never met a garlic scape.

Jessica and Jeremy of Swift River Farm introduced me to the curvy, green flower shoots at their booth at the Lemhi County Farmers Market in Salmon, Idaho. The couple, who also sell subscription shares in their farm’s produce, spun an improbable tale of sex and scapes.

Long before humans began sautéing cloves or warding off vampires with the heads, garlic dispensed with seed. The plants gave up sex. Each of these Shakers of the plant world eschewed others of its kind and simply produced garlic heads that grew into plants that produced garlic heads.

Jeremy and Jessica embrace garlic’s celibacy and plant individual cloves, which grow into plants that produce full heads. Each plant is genetically identical to its single parent, which is identical to its single parent, and so on back through time.

Oddly, some kinds of garlic still produce flowers, as if trying to blend in with the rest of the plant world. While other plants produce flowers with male and female parts that swap genes with the opposite flower parts to form seeds, garlic flowers form bulbils. Bulbils look like tiny cloves and grow into plants identical to their parent.

The scapes I discovered at the market are garlic flower stalks with developing bulbils. I cut open one of the largest developing flower clusters.

I’ve also learned there are two kinds of garlic: soft neck and hard neck. The garlic in grocery stores is the former, as it stores well enough to keep the produce bins stocked all year. I might be excused my garlic-scape ignorance, as they are only produced by hard neck garlic. These types are grown in cooler climates and usually consumed locally, as they don’t store well.

My new friends, the garlic scapes, gave me the perfect excuse to skip my usual toast-and-yogurt breakfast and linger over an omelet-and-garlic-scape-potato Sunday brunch.